Huntersville Fire Dept., Inc. Contract Questions

The following excerpt is from my column in the Sept. 29, 2016 issue of the Herald Weekly.        

Did you know the Huntersville Fire Department is not actually a department of the town, but a non-profit corporation that contracts with Huntersville to provide fire, rescue and other emergency services? The most recent service agreement between Huntersville and the Huntersville Fire Department, Inc. was signed in October 2012 for a period of five years. This contract will be up for renewal next year during an election year. It will be interesting to see whether any current town board members advocate for a competitive bidding process for fire services prior to agreeing to a renewal of the current agreement.

It’s been over nine months since that column ran and neither town staff nor the town board has taken any public action on the Huntersville Fire Dept, Inc. contract renewal. [See contract below.] The stated rationale to rush a vote on the HFFA management contract right before the last election and eight months before it was set to expire was something about the current management company needing time to plan for the future. We are a mere three months away from the current HFD, Inc. contract expiring, so where is the same sense of urgency from town staff or the town board on rushing a vote on the renewal of this contract?

Here’s my question for town staff and the town board – why isn’t this contract for services being put out for bid like the management contract for HFFA or like any other contract for services with the town? If I was a cynic, I’d be tempted to suggest HFD, Inc. is receiving preferential treatment because it’s an election year and no politician wants to be accused of being critical of firemen in an election year.

Huntersville budgeted $3,455,464 for fire services in the recently approved FY 17/18 budget. This is up almost a million dollars over last year. How much of this increase is related to salaries/payments for HFD, Inc. employees?

The current management company at HFFA has agreed to slash their management fee by $25K – back to their 2011 contract fee – solely because the town put the HFFA contract out for bid. Funny how competition works to lower prices. Could the town achieve similar savings on fire services by putting the HFD, Inc. contract out for bid? In light of the massive budget overruns for the massive new fire station #4 being built on McIlwaine, maybe a little more oversight and competition wouldn’t hurt.

An aside: How is it that taxpayers were charged far more than originally budgeted due to cost overruns for Station #4, yet HFD, Inc. recently took to social media to show off their brand new Tahoes?

The language in paragraph 15 states that if neither party gives notice to the other at least sixty (60) days prior to the final termination date of this Agreement – which would appear to be Oct. 15, 2017, such non-action shall be deemed a mutually agreed upon renewal for another five (5) year period on the same terms… This 60 day deadline is quickly approaching next month – either August 15 or 16. There are only two more regular town board meetings scheduled before that date.

If nothing else, the town needs to provide notice prior to the upcoming deadline to re-negotiate the terms of this contract to make fire services more transparent. There is no line-item breakdown for fire services in the town budget. Despite the vast majority of their funding coming from taxpayer dollars, there is also no requirement in the contract that open meeting and public record laws apply to HFD, Inc. Wake County already has an entire section in their fire services contract specifically requiring such transparency from their fire departments.

It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to also re-negotiate the terms of paragraph 8 so the town doesn’t have to pay twice for vehicles/equipment in the event of termination or cancellation of the Agreement. That’s right – the town doesn’t even own the vehicles/equipment it purchases for HFD, Inc. with taxpayer dollars. Paragraph 9 may warrant review as well so HFD, Inc. doesn’t just get to distribute its assets to non-profits upon dissolution.

Today is officially the start of filing for local elections. It will be interesting to see if any candidates for office in Huntersville decide to make the HFD, Inc. contract renewal an issue on the campaign trail.

Eric

Fire services K